How do you become a mystery shopper?

If you could choose your dream job, what would it be? For many people, a mystery shopper sounds like a fun option. The thought of being able to wander round shops all day and get paid for doing so seems a little too good to be true. But is it?

In this article we take a look at what is involved in being a mystery shopper, what you could earn from it, and how to become one if this is a career that interests you.


What is a mystery shopper?

A mystery shopper visits stores to report back on their experience to the company that owns the store. They pose as a real customer whilst at the same time making an assessment of the customer service and experience provided. 

Many big names such as Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and the Post Office use mystery shoppers, and an estimated 50,000 mystery shopping trips take place in the UK every single month.

The shopper is likely to be asked to check particular things on their visit. For example, it may be one department or product range, or more general aspects such as the speed of service, cleanliness of the store, or appeal of the layout. 

On a typical working day, a mystery shopper can visit 5-10 stores in an 8 hour period. They also need to prepare a report on each store with details of their visit. These reports are used by the stores to help make improvements and determine staff training needs and can even influence staff bonuses. So as a mystery shopper, you have a genuine opportunity to make a difference to the quality of service a store provides and also to the wellbeing and recognition of its staff.

A variation on mystery shopping is mystery dining. In this case, your job would be to book and eat a meal at a restaurant, and report back afterwards on various aspects of your experience.

Remember that the aim of both mystery shopping and mystery dining is to be anonymous and not draw attention to yourself, whilst making sure that you fully experience whatever you have been asked to observe. So to be successful in either mystery shopping or mystery dining, you will need to find ways of taking notes and/or remembering information so that you can include it in your report later. This is particularly important for mystery dining: a mystery shopper could always pop back into the store to double check something but this is not really possible for a mystery diner. 

But the more work you do for a mystery shopping or dining company, and the better your reports, the more likely you are to get better jobs from them as recognition and reward for your time and effort.


How much do mystery shoppers get paid?

A successful mystery shopper can potentially earn up to around £150 a day: perhaps more if they also use video as part of their visit. The mystery shopper may also be reimbursed for any expenses such as travel or accommodation. 

However, this level of pay and expenses is becoming increasingly rare. Many mystery shoppers are recompensed mostly by being given a small amount of money to spend in each store, and keeping the products they buy. 

If you are interested in being a mystery diner, you would get the costs of your meal reimbursed, and usually also something towards your travel.

Remember that as either a mystery shopper or mystery diner, there are detailed reports to complete after your visit. So you need to consider whether the shopping or dining perks that you receive are worth enough to cover the overall time you will have spent on the job.

Also bear in mind that if you do begin to make a reasonable amount of money from mystery shopping or dining, there will be tax to pay on it if your overall income is above your personal tax limit (£12,570 for 2021-22). The value of any purchased goods that you are allowed to keep also counts as income for tax purposes. 

If you are doing mystery shopping on a self-employed basis, you will need to register with HMRC as self-employed even if your self-employed income that tax year is not high enough to pay tax on. Legally you need to register with HMRC by 5th October after the end of the tax year in which you became self-employed.

If you earn over £6515, you may also be required to pay Class 2 National Insurance contributions of £3.05 per week.


How to become a mystery shopper?

Most mystery shoppers are self-employed. They register with a mystery shopping company who then allocates them to visit stores on behalf of various clients. Most companies have job boards to enable mystery shoppers to express their interest in available jobs. 

Some of the better known mystery shopping companies in the UK are Mystery Shoppers, Marketforce, ABa and Tern. However, it is not easy to get regular work as a mystery shopper. An estimated 500,000 people are registered as mystery shoppers in the UK, so there is a lot of competition. Only around 10% of mystery shoppers have regular work, but it is still an area that interests many people.

The situation is similar for mystery diners.

Because of its popularity, there are scams around that you need to be careful to avoid. Some mystery shopping sites require you to complete detailed surveys that are primarily designed to make money for the site rather than land you your dream mystery shopping job. You should also never part with any money to register for mystery shopping work. If you get an email or call asking you to do so, it is likely to be a scam.

To protect yourself, if you are dealing with any mystery shopping company, do make sure that it is fully authorised by the MSPA (Mystery Shopping Professionals Association).


So, if shopping is your passion, and you’d like to start earning something back, you could consider applying to be a mystery shopper. We hope that this article has provided a helpful introduction to the world of mystery shopping. Good luck if you decide to take things further!

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